The Concept of Equality in Nobel Laureate A. K. Sen's Work: A Critical Assessment

By Kamath, Shyam J. | Journal of Private Enterprise, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Concept of Equality in Nobel Laureate A. K. Sen's Work: A Critical Assessment


Kamath, Shyam J., Journal of Private Enterprise


Abstract

This article analyzes the theoretical foundations of Nobel Laureate A.K. Sen's concept of equality as reflected in his work in many areas of economics and social thought. The fundamental approach of "functionings" and "capabilities" that has been the hallmark of Sen's approach to equality is first presented and the common bases identified. The basic concept used is then analyzed from a logical and empirical perspective. The adequacy of this approach is then scrutinized by contrasting alternative approaches of end-state and process notions of equality. A comprehensive critique is developed, and the major shortcomings of Sen's concept of equality are detailed. Sen's conception of equality is found to be inadequate on logical and methodological grounds. Hence, it is suggested that this approach may be an inappropriate guide for economic policy and social intervention to facilitate human development.

Introduction

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's work in economics, political theory and philosophy has been founded on the principle of end-state equality. His magisterial contributions to economics and social thought have covered a wide canvas, with his theoretical writings being at the center of the controversies that have raged in social choice theory and welfare economics; economic philosophy; public choice and political theory; the economics of poverty, distribution and development; and the economics of famines. His contributions in each one of these fields of human inquiry are so prolific that a fulllength treatment of these contributions in each area would take many pages to write. However, the notion of end-state equality has permeated all his work in these areas. This paper limits itself to a critical examination of Sen's concept and application of end-state equality. No attempt is made here to detail or assess other aspects of his many contributions in the areas identified above.

This paper focuses on Sen's concept of equality with a particular emphasis on the dieoretical basis of this important concept as reflected in his two major books on inequality, On Economic Inequality (1973), abbreviated to OEI, and Inequality Reexamined (1992), abbreviated to IER, as well as in his more extensive work on freedom and development (see Sen 1991,1992a, 1992b, 1993, 1999 and 2002). While Sen has been sensitive to the process that generates inequality and has tried to deal with criticisms of his end-state notion of equality in his later work, I will argue that this attempt remains unpersuasive. This later work is also permeated by the same concept of outcomes that he uses in the books analyzed in detail here (see, for example, his Development as Freedom, 1999).

Sen on Equality

Throughout his writings, Sen focuses on human development as being measured and assessed in terms of the provision of "social opportunities" and "capabilities" (in terms of health, literacy, education, nutrition, longevity, self-respect, etc.). This focus on the expansion of "social opportunities" and "capabilities" is predicated on the notion of freedom seen as the range of options a person has in deciding what kind of life to lead. According to Sen, the capacity to enjoy such freedom is predicated on equality of opportunity in attaining the requisite capabilities (see OEI, Annexe A.7). This underlying focus is clear from his discussion on the Demands of Equality in IER,

The particular approach to equality that I have explored involves judging individual advantage by the freedom to achieve, incorporating (but going beyond) actual achievements. In many contexts, particularly in the assessment of individual wellbeing, these conditions can, I have argued, be fruitfully seen in terms of the capability to function, incorporating (but going beyond) die actual functionings that a person can achieve. The 'capability approach' builds on a general concern with freedoms to achieve (including die capabilities to function) (IER: 129). …

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